Food is an integral part of our well-being, physically, emotionally and socially. We need food to sustain our nutritional needs and maintain a healthy body. We use food for comfort - cuddling up with hot soup on a cold day or getting out the ice cream when feeling down. Food also helps us connect socially, it is used to woo possible romantic partners, as a way to enjoy an evening with friends or to bond with our family over the dinner table. But what happens when you have a fear of eating?
Phobias are the irrational fear of some object or situation. It is often a fear of something very specific, such as the fear of flying or the fear of dogs but people can have a phobia about anything. Phobias can cause all of the same symptoms of anxiety, for example shaking, dizziness, feeling as if you can't breathe and nausea. Many people simply avoid the object or situation that causes the fear, for example, if you have a fear of elevators, you might avoid going in any building where you need to ride an elevator. This type of behavior can severely limit your activities but when you have a fear of eating, it can impact your health.
There are two main types of eating phobias: food aversion and the fear of swallowing or choking. When you have a food aversion, you often have an extremely limited diet; you may avoid foods with a certain texture, color or smell. The fear of choking can cause an inability to swallow and, in extreme cases, you may limit yourself to only liquids avoiding or panicking at the thought of swallowing solid foods.
Young children frequently limit their diet to one or two foods, wanting to eat the same thing at each meal. But this type of food aversion is often temporary. Some children and adults, for various reasons, may continue to have food aversions. The feelings associated with certain foods may not prompt "anxiety symptoms" may be include nausea, vomiting or revulsion to the particular food although for some people certain foods do invoke feelings of fear.
Some common reasons for food aversions:
- Previously choking/getting sick while or after eating a particular food
- Seeing someone else become ill after eating a particular food
- Religious or cultural beliefs about a food
- Traumatic experiences in your past which occurred while or around eating certain foods
In addition, some people have a hard time with foods of a certain texture. Children with autism often avoid foods that may have a certain texture, smell, taste or color. In these cases it is often caused be sensory sensitivities rather than previous unpleasant memories.
For many, food aversions don't cause much interference in their life. For example, if you previously became ill eating shrimp and can no longer eat it, there are many other options to choose from without interfering with your nutritional needs. However, severe food avoidance or aversion can sometimes cause health problems if you are not getting the adequate nutrition. Your doctor or therapist can work with you creating a series of desensitization steps to help you overcome your food phobia.
Inability to Swallow
For some, the fear of gagging creates a food or eating phobia. They become so overwhelmed at the possibility of gagging, they can avoid eating solid foods altogether.
Globus Hystericus, a feeling of having a lump in your throat, can also cause the fear of choking. In a previous post, Merely Me quotes a member, "I feel as if I'm going out of my mind. Is it a normal part of panic/anxiety disorder to not be able to eat? I have had such difficulty swallowing as I feel I'm going to choke on everything I eat. I feel a tight lump sensation in my throat at all times."
Even the thought of food can cause your throat to tighten.
In severe cases, you might limit what you eat to baby food, soft foods, such as mashed potatoes or pudding or live entirely on a liquid diet.
Therapists and doctors can work with you to create a desensitization program. For example, foods are slowly introduced to you. At first, you may not swallow the food but be asked to hold it in your mouth, then as you get used to that, a food with a little more solidity than you are used to may be introduced, until you are able to swallow it. This process is progressive and can take weeks or months to complete but your therapist will work with you to help you overcome your anxiety and be able to eat and enjoy foods.
"Anxiety Disorders in Children," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Anxiety Disorders Association of America
"Food Aversions and Food Anxiety in Babies and Young Children," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, ParentsOwn.co.uk
"Overcoming Eating Phobias," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Anxiety Care UK